How to Cross the Ocean on a Freighter Ship

by Brett & Kate McKay on September 24, 2009 · 46 comments

in Travel, Travel & Leisure

freighter

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Joseph P. Lenze. A few weeks ago Mr. Lenze shared his tips for international backpacking. Now, by popular demand, he gives us his advice on traveling by freighter ship, a manly adventure I’m willing to bet every man has dreamed about at one time or another. This article was originally published on the Community blog.

At the Port of Long Beach, California, I boarded a freighter named the Punjab Senator. Twenty-two days later I got off the ship in Singapore after a winter crossing of the Pacific. This trip wasn’t for everyone, but it was definitely an adventure I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

If you’re tired of ho-hum traveling by plane and want to experience a trip aboard a freighter ship, here’s what you need to know to get started.

First Things First: Common Misconceptions About Freighter Travel

1. Freighter travel is a cheap alternative to flying on a plane. The popular old-school romantic notion of showing up penniless at a dock with a rucksack and then “earning” your passage by swabbing the decks will have to remain in Robert Louis Stevenson novels. Traveling on a freighter requires advanced booking and it is generally more expensive than flying. A fifteen day cruise from Oakland to Shanghai will cost about $2000 (US). When traveling on a freighter ship you are essentially paying for many days and nights of food and accommodation in addition to the transportation.

2. Freighter travel is similar to being on a cruise. The purpose of a cruise ship is to provide a relaxing and enjoyable time for everyone on board. The purpose of a freighter is to get cargo from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Cruise ships troll around tranquil seas, with stabilizers so that you barely know you are moving. Freighters haul at a breakneck pace across the open ocean, often through storms. A cruise will be populated with thousands of people, whereas a freighter is often a larger vessel with only 20 or so people on it. While a cruise ship has restaurants, spas, gymnasiums, and tons of activities, a freighter will have a TV with a DVD player, a radio, and if you’re lucky, an old Nautilus machine for working out.

3. You can ride a freighter from anywhere to anywhere. Most freighter ships follow well defined shipping routes and make stops at the large port cities (Long Beach, Oakland, Singapore, Hong Kong, Kaohsiung, etc.) But if your dream is to catch a freighter from the Jersey shore to Isla Mujeres, Mexico….it’s not going to happen.

Now that we’ve gone over the negatives, here’s how you can get started. There are several companies that book freighter cruises – just google freighter travel. I used www.freighterworld.com and I was extremely happy with them. If you browse the site you can get a good idea of the duration, cost, and ports that you can travel to and from. Their FAQ section contains a wealth of information. As a further affront to your Kerouac dreams of spontaneous adventure, you will have to book your passage at least a month in advance and proof of insurance is also necessary.

freighter2

If you decide to go for it, here are some tips:

1. Bring Seabands. I had spent a significant amount of time on fishing boats, cruise ships, and sailboats without ever getting seasick. However, when the Punjab Senator cruised out of the Port of Oakland into the open Pacific, I felt my stomach turn. I used sea bands which are little wrist bands that exert pressure on your wrist to alleviate the effects of nausea. I am unsure if the seasickness was psychosomatic or real – the idea of trudging straight into the Pacific during winter was slightly unsettling – but the seabands definitely made me feel better when I was wearing them. During a storm, our ship hit a roll of 20 degrees, which is a tremendous amount of motion. The good news is that by the end of the trip I was able to sleep through motion that left my belongings scattered about my room.

2. Bring books. I am not a fast reader, but during this trip I completed some monster works by Dostoyevsky, Ayn Rand, Solzhenitsyn, and John Steinbeck. The ship had a good library, but many of the works were in German since the crew was mostly German. On a typical day I worked out twice, watched a DVD or two, wrote extensively, took two naps, ate three meals, and still had enough down time to finish four novels.

3. Understand that you must entertain yourself. On my ship the officers consisted of 7 Germans and 4 Russians, and the remainder of the crew consisted of 10 Kiribati. English is the language of the sea, but no one else on the boat was a native English speaker. Additionally, in spite of the friends I made on the ship, the seamen are there to work, and there were many times when everyone was too busy to hang out. At the majority of the ports we stopped at, I went to the shore alone because the entire crew was busy supervising the loading and unloading of cargo.

4. Special diets are not accommodated. The hardest part about freighter traveling (for me) was the food. As a passenger you eat with the officers-on my boat they were German and Russian. They ate a meat intensive, diet and I am a vegetarian. On land, it is never a problem for me to find acceptable cuisine anywhere, but in the galley you can’t simply choose somewhere else to eat. For me, that meant many weeks of eating cheese sandwiches. Thank goodness I brought a tub of peanut butter.

5. Know where your ship is. Some of the ports are HUGE, as in miles across…a seemingly endless maze of containers stacked four stories high. If you go onshore alone, it is much easier to get out of the port than it is to come back to the port to re-board. There are often several exits for a port and not knowing where to go can be extremely frustrating. I was lost in the port of Singapore for a significant amount of time trying to find my way back to my ship.

6. Freighter room etiquette. In general, the setting is informal and the rules are similar to college dorm room etiquette. If someone’s door is open, you are welcome to go in. If someone’s door is shut, they are either not there or they would like privacy.

In this article, I tended to focus on some of the negative aspects of freighter travel. To be best prepared, you should know about the difficulties. You don’t need instructions on how to drink gin and tonics while celebrating an International Date Line crossing. Overall, I really enjoyed the unique experience of freighter travel. I have an understanding and appreciation of the ocean I would not have otherwise. The informal atmosphere that allowed you to sit in the bridge while the first mate navigated was matchless. Finally, freighter travel gives some adventure street-cred that is tough to get. When you’re drinking a beer in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia and some backpacker asks you where you flew into, it feels pretty manly to look up and say, “I didn’t.”

{ 46 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mitch Sprague September 24, 2009 at 9:31 pm

Brilliant!! I would love to try this at least once. Excellent tips.

2 Hutch September 24, 2009 at 9:33 pm

Awesome, just awesome. Great post bro.

3 Justin Powers September 24, 2009 at 9:50 pm

Awesome article. Makes me want to be a bachelor again just to make the trip! I would also love an article that expounded on the last paragraph – the stories, the experiences, the manliness of it…
Truly a tale worth telling. Thank you for sharing.

4 Peter Crowe September 24, 2009 at 10:00 pm

As a logistician who deals with cargo ships on a frequent basis, this was an interesting insight into the human aspect of the massive freighter ship!

5 Jon September 24, 2009 at 10:56 pm

you lost me at “vegetarian.”

6 Jonny | thelifething.com September 24, 2009 at 11:21 pm

I had considered this approach to Travel from England to China but 6 weeks seemed a long time. Maybe I’ll travel back that way…I wonder if I can get internet access :)

7 Dan September 25, 2009 at 12:41 am

I’m not going to lie (and please don’t poke fun!), but even though I’ve been on two ships for numerous deployments and in the Navy for over 13 years, I’ve secretly always wanted to do this! I’m going to hold on to the website and maybe give it a shot someday!

8 michael September 25, 2009 at 4:14 am

As a a professional mariner with 10 yrs+ in command of freighters and ferries, I enjoyed your story. It was very accurate and interesting. It is difficult to describe the feeling of being mid-ocean on a quiet bridge sailing along with only the horizon to see. Glad you enjoyed the experience.

9 Rob September 25, 2009 at 8:40 am

While I ignored the vegetarian comment, I do have one question…how do you get back home (to Oakland) after the 15 day, $2000 journey to Shanghai?

10 Aaron September 25, 2009 at 9:35 am

I’m bummed that you can’t work your way across the ocean. Guess I’ll mark this off of my list of things to do.

11 Shane September 25, 2009 at 10:01 am

Wow. I had never considered freighter-travel before reading this, but this definitely got me interested. I would imagine that it could be a character-building experience, just for taking you so far out of your everyday context. Though it would be nice if it weren’t so darn expensive…

12 Joseph Lenze September 25, 2009 at 10:31 am

@Rob, in my case, I just backpacked across Asia and Europe and then caught another boat to NYC from England.

13 James from Man Tripping September 25, 2009 at 10:34 am

That is a really cool article … I had heard about riding a freighter before but had dismissed it as urban legend etc.

Great article!

Anyone want to take a Freighter Mancation next summer?

14 David Cox September 25, 2009 at 10:46 am

I have a stupid question: What are security and customs processing like on freight travel versus air travel? Do you have to go through customs every time you get off in a foreign port? Is security in Oakland going to confiscate a knife you bought as a souvenir in Hong Kong? How does that work?

15 Joseph Lenze September 25, 2009 at 11:01 am

@David that is not a stupid question and it actually has a very interesting/scary answer.

The answer is that it varies by port and by time. I was able to board the ship without being questioned and only had to give my passport to the captain after being on board for a while. My passport wasn’t stamped for any of the countries I entered via their port. In theory there should be customs at every port, but I remember one in particular where I stopped at the customs booth at 4 AM and no one was in there so I just continued into the country. There are no metal detectors and no one will take your knife…

16 Aaron September 25, 2009 at 2:24 pm

@Joseph, I’d really like to hear more about your backpacking across Asia and Europe.

17 James! September 25, 2009 at 3:56 pm

Very badass. I wish I would’ve done this while I was younger.

18 Jack Emmerich September 25, 2009 at 6:13 pm

Geez, you say it so nonchalantly (granted I can’t read tone), “Oh I just walk across the continent until I hit England and grabbed a boat from there”. Freakin’ manly.

I hope one day to have the spare cash for an adventure like this. I’m not a picky eater and if theres time to work out and read some Ayn Rand. I’m there.

19 Russell Stearman September 26, 2009 at 12:54 pm

Interesting this should appear, I’m due on a freighter from Japan to Canada in mid-November and can’t wait for it. Though I’ve already had to long travel experience backpacking and read Ayn Rand two months ago, if my trip will be anything like yours, I’m glad I learnt some Russian.

20 by the sea September 26, 2009 at 9:38 pm

Sounds like a great adventure! I wish it were a little cheaper, but would be a lot of fun.

21 Peadar Ban September 26, 2009 at 9:57 pm

After graduating high school in 1960 I shipped out for about a year and a half, and would have stayed a mariner for the rest of my life had I not had a scholarship waiting for me. I can understand exactly what Michael istalking about being alone on the bridge far out to sea, or sleeping on the hatch covers in the tropics feeling the gentle roll of the ocean and the thrum of the engines below. Mine were Liberties and Victory ships, and most of my fellow crew were guys who’d made it through World War II. The stories were a wonder, too. Thanks for the memories.

22 Hans Hageman September 27, 2009 at 11:23 am

This piece had me primed for an adventure – if only my wife was as excited! It also got me to think fondly of my 70-year old father-in-law who “shapes up” several times a year and makes a living working the galleys on freighters that travel the world.

23 Alex September 27, 2009 at 12:10 pm

What route did you take from Asia to Europe? Middle east? Russia?

24 Mr. Pickwick September 28, 2009 at 12:51 am

I have considered making such a trek via freighter in the past, but this article makes it all the more intriguing. One day, I am just going to have to do it.

25 senatorrosewater September 28, 2009 at 3:43 am

As an deep sea mariner on American ships (SIU) I’ve never had a problem maintaining a vegetarian diet, and the stewards on most ships are sympathetic. I have heard that some of the cuisine on foreign flag ships is somewhat dubious though.

Honestly though, I don’t recommend this. As a passenger you are cargo. Anytime you’re out of your room, you’re basically in the way. Acting the part of a gracious guest goes a long way, but you’re bound to wear out your welcome on a voyage of any considerable length. And in this day and age, the crew is going to know that you went way, way the hell out of your way just so you could fancy yourself a little salty and have a story to tell.

My advice… stick to the white boats.

26 Joseph Lenze September 28, 2009 at 9:13 am

@Alex, I went north through SouthEast Asia, and took the transiberian railroad through Russia.

@SenatorRoswewater, My ship was 294 meters long with a crew of 20 people, the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower in 332.9 m long with about a crew size of over 6000. I wouldn’t say I was in the way every time I left my room – I had to really go out of my way if I wanted to find people. 4 yrs after the trip I am still friends with many of the mariners I met. But I do agree that the passenger definitely needs to have an intuitive understanding of when to stay out of the way.

27 senatorrosewater September 28, 2009 at 1:20 pm

Its true that ships are huge, but the readers do need to understand that the livable space on board is very, very small. Maybe I’m just touchy and irritable, I don’t know. I’ve never sailed with a passenger aboard, but I’ve definitely sailed with enough riding gang members, security personnel, company officials, etc. You might not feel like you’re in the way, but sometimes you take the last cup of coffee and don’t make another pot, or do your while everyone is off watch with dirty clothes.

Anyone considering doing this should completely understand that whether a seaman is aboard for a month or a year, the ship is his home. When you’re aboard, you are effectively a houseguest in a house of 25 men, who all have a job to do and all have a very complicated pre-existing dynamic. Readers should also know that each ship is different; some are happy ships with great crews and good morale, and some are rust tubs on shit runs with a bunch of bastards who can’t stand each other. It sounds like you caught a good ship, but there’s no way of knowing until you cast off.

28 senatorrosewater September 28, 2009 at 1:25 pm

Readers should also know that the nature of the cargo determines the length of a port stay.

Just because the itinerary says you’re going to Seoul, Hong Kong, and Singapore, doesn’t mean you’re in for a two week vacation. If you’re working containers, you might be at the dock about 18 hours, and if you get drunk and don’t speak Korean and take the wrong train, that ship isn’t waiting for you.

29 Robert Real-Man R. September 29, 2009 at 10:36 am

Fifteen days are not that bad. I was convinced that a trip like this would take at least a month :).

30 Legoboy Chocolatecheek September 29, 2009 at 12:01 pm

Whining about how they didn’t serve your choice of vegetarian diet doesn’t sound too manly to me. A manly thing to do would to suck it up and eat whatever you’re served.

31 Jackie_Treehorn September 29, 2009 at 1:53 pm

I don’t understand the point of doing this.

1. It’s more expensive than air travel.

2. It’s far less comfortable than air travel.

3. It takes WAY longer than air travel.

32 Eddie September 29, 2009 at 2:43 pm

Jackie, if you don’t understand why someone would do this, than it’s clearly not for you. But I’ll try to illuminate your mind anyway.

1) You get to experience life on the ocean for several weeks.
2) You get to visit multiple ports around the world.
3) You get to befriend members of the crew and learn how a boat works.
4) You get to befriend people from around the world.
5) You get to live on a boat without the huge crowds and foo fooey stuff of a cruise ship.
6) You get to have a completely unique experience (not everyone thinks “comortable” should be a criteria in making decisions.)

33 Ryan September 30, 2009 at 8:10 am

Interesting article, although in my mind it was an article in why NOT to do this.

As Jackie said, this way of travelling is expensive, less comfortable and longer than simply travelling to your destination by air. While I do agree that these elements add a level of grit and uniqueness to the experience, I would have to weigh this with using the money/time for something I would consider more rewarding.

Then you have the element of being there as a guest. Maybe it is me, but I would feel like the third wheel on board, and while staring at the horizon alone does hold some unique peacefulness, doing it for two weeks would drive me insane.

Anyway, great writeup and I am glad to hear that you enjoyed your experience. I wonder if you can hitch a ride on a cargo jet (ala FedEx)? That would solve the time issues…

34 Joseph Lenze September 30, 2009 at 3:08 pm

To all the questions of “why” to do it, that varies greatly person to person. Really, why climb a mountain when it’s more comfortable to watch TV on a couch? For me personally, my goal was to circumnavigate the earth without getting into an airplane. A freighter ship was the only non-flight way I found to cross the Pacific.

35 Soubriquet October 1, 2009 at 3:42 pm

I did this, in 1980. Not for as far, or for so long, I travelled from England to Finland on a Finnish container-ship. I wanted to travel to Finland, not just clamber into a pressurised tube, and step out into an air terminal just like the one I’d left, a few hours ago.
Instead, I travelled, watching the coast of England dwindle behind me, feeling the deck vibrate beneath my feet. I watched oil rigs with their burning flare-stacks slide by, ………………………… eventually, I stood on deck as we weaved through the Finnish coastal archipelago, and the port of Helsinki crept closer.

The officer who welcomed me on-board gave me a brief list of do’s and dont’s.
I visited the bridge, engine-room and galley only when invited, I did not spend a lot of time in the officer’s ward-room, though I was told I was welcome to do so, I listened to other people’s stories, withoul inflicting mine upon the, though I tried to answer their questions when they asked. I spent a lot of time on deck, watching the sea go by, and I spent quite a few hours with hammer, chisel, and wire brush, chipping rust, for which I was rewarded in beer and backslaps.
I read, wrote, and enjoyed the solitude.
I would thoroughly recommend it.

I understand Senatorrosewater’s point of view, he seems to think passengers are one step below rats.
I’d point out that he gets paid to shift cargo, I paid to be cargo.
If he’s not happy with that, I suggest he takes it up with his employers.

36 dthe December 9, 2009 at 9:11 pm

sounds like a good way to practice a second language. i hadn’t thought of it before

37 asp April 4, 2010 at 12:36 am

I’ve been wondering how a vegetarian (like myself) would fare on a freighter. I’ve done the cheese sandwiches often enough on road trips, so I could deal with that. But I also found a comment on another site: “The type of food will vary with the nationality of the officers but the cooks will do their best to accommodate you. I was pleasantly surprised when clients (who hadn’t told me they were vegetarians) came home delighted with the dishes the cook prepared just for them.” http://www.tcpltd.com/freighter-voyages.html

That makes it sound like one could luck out and find a ship with a flexible cook!

38 Meliss April 17, 2010 at 7:37 pm

I really appreciated your candor, Oakland CA is my home town and an ocean crossing is top of my list, your description helps immensely in my preparations. Now it looks like a crossing may be sooner rather then later. My husband has landed a job in Hong Kong, I’m sad to leave the Taco Trucks of Oakland but ya gotta go where the work is. I’d like to travel by cargo ship along with our cats. If anyone can recommend more reading and or information I’d be grateful.

39 Linda May 17, 2010 at 10:53 am

Check this link http://www.seatravelltd.co.uk/j/index.php/freighter/choose-your-freighter
or email those people they are able to help with a reservation. I did 2 voyage with them Transatlantic there and back – easy.
Will definitely do it again.
Linda

40 Rory July 30, 2010 at 5:15 am

I’m going to be in New Zealand next year whilst on my backpacking travels, and I am interested in possibly getting a freighter (or god knows what else) to Antarctica (Hey, why not?)
Anyone have any recommendations, seeing as I am a backpacker, and therefore money is not my strong point… I’d appreciate any MANLY help that anyone could give me.

p.s. If you say take a jumper, you suck. ;-)

41 George August 11, 2010 at 9:11 pm

From December 2008 to April 2009 I was a passenger on the Rickmers Jakarta. It was a 126-day, round-the-world trip and a great experience. I’ve included the link to my blog at http://gklucsarits.blogspot.com
There are some other links to helpful resources, especially Dale Stenseth’s blog from the same ship.

Cheers,
George

42 Marilyn September 21, 2012 at 10:21 pm

Hello Fellows…
Well I am gatecrashing, as a femme on this wonderful blog. I actually WOULD do this and was looking for a way to cross the Pacific instead of flying. Somehow, I have to add this of my list of things to do…since I was going to look at teaching abroad in China again, this might be the ticket I was looking to punch. A rather interesting way to travel. Definitely a story or two in this journey. I have to also consider that I have to still take that rail journey across Sibera yet…and climb Everest.

43 dave January 10, 2013 at 9:06 pm

You have killed my dream…. Hahaha Realistically I know understand that they are feeding you for several days maybe even weeks so to think you could hitch a ride for $20 in hindsight probably was ridiculous of me. Thanks for writing about a topic that is so hard to find information on.

44 kevin mcevoy October 15, 2013 at 1:27 pm

i spent most of my life at sea,i loved every minute.on a shell tanker [hemitrochis] we slow steamed to tiawan from the black sea via panama.we were 11 weeks at it young lads were cracking up,but i just carried on.one other trip we hit hurricane betsy,i thought we had it as you had no horizan,and a cargo of polaris,on a fort boat r.f.a fort langley kevin mcevoy/

45 Hermes January 11, 2014 at 7:52 pm

44 years ago I *did* work on freighters – one going between the two international sides of one of the Great Lakes as an OS and the other on a Finnish ship as Captain (and Chief-Engineer’s) messman. I loved having the key to the larder below! It was a cushy job – all I had to do was serve those two officers their meals and make their rooms.

However in Mauritius 8 years ago I enquired about doing the same and a Frieght company told me it is too complicated now – mostly insurance and drug smuggling risk.

We used sonething called a Seaman’s Book I think it was called. No need for passport (which was locked up in a safe, made me feel like indentured labour or I had been Shanghaied.

It is a source of great frustration that in 1972 I was welcome but not now. I git my first job by hanging out at the SIU office, then applying at a Freight company in Vancouver which flew me at their expense up to Powell River to journey inbetween Long Beach and BC moving paper (in Eastern Canada it was aluminum).

I would jump at the chance to work my way across. But no way will I pay to do so. If it was $200 and I worked part-time maybe.

I expected the crew to be pirates but they were all kinds – mostly decent jeep-to-themselves guys. I disliked the four on, four off crazy schedule on one of the ships. One day my roommate left the port open and our room flooded.

I miss being at the helm ofthe ship in a storm (we lost a guy pissing off the bacj) I could have done without the duty-free maniac Finns who even while on watch were usually drunk.Canadian union rules I could do without too.

All in all a good experience.

46 cherishkan February 11, 2014 at 6:54 am

Great post!! This is just what I was looking for while researching for my no flying round the world trip!!!

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